How long is a piece of string?

One thing I’ve found very difficult to work out when writing for children is this:

How long should a children’s book be?

For the purpose of this post I’m referring to books for what our American cousins call “Middle Grade” or MG, which usually translates into the 8-12 age group (sometimes 8-11 or 9-12).

There’s so much contradictory information out there. If you look at published books (and the Scholastic Bookexpert site is an excellent resource for this) the length varies enormously. Take Neil Gaiman – his Coraline clocks in at 30,000 words while The Graveyard Book is over 67,000 words long.

Jamie Thomson’s Dark Lord: The Teenage Years is around 55,000 while the sequel, A Fiend in Need, is a whisker over 70,000.

Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series opener The Lightning Thief is 87,000 words long.

JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books start at the 77,000 word Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, peak at the eye-watering 250,000 of The Order of the Phoenix, and end on the relatively short (ha!) Deathly Hallows at 197,000 words.

So the answer to the question, “How long should a children’s book be?” based on a review of published work, is: “Anywhere from 30,000 to a quarter of a million.”

On the other hand, if you look at Writer’s Digest, the categorical statement is that Middle Grade is 20,000 to 45,000 words. When my friend, colleague, and fellow aspiring author Colin-Paul Jones received an editing report on his novel, the report said:

The word count for junior fiction should be 30,000 – 40,000.

This all becomes very confusing when you’ve spent the past six months submitting a novel of around 70,000 words. Is it struggling to attract attention because of the length? When literary agent Julia Churchill on Twitter said, in response to my question about book length:

A book is as long as it needs to be. Sorry for being Yoda-ish but no answer. All about if it works.

did that mean “any length is fine, as long as it works for the book” or does it mean “I prefer under 40,000 to fit the conventional length for 8-12 books, but if it’s unbelievably good and couldn’t work if it were any shorter, I’m willing to overlook the length”? Do established authors get away with longer books, while debut authors are expected to produce shorter works while they’re building their audience?

You see, The Chimney Rabbit is already a tale of two parts, and could, with a little work, be turned into two books of between 30,000 and 40,000 each. Would that make it easier to find representation?

Now I don’t know if I should be pressing on with my next book, or revamping my first book. If I do start on my next book, should I aim for the 30,000 to 40,000 word mark, or just see what the story determines?

Still, no-one ever said this would be easy. I suppose if I do rework The Chimney Rabbit into two separate books, it would mean that, added to the sequel The Underground Mice, I’ve already written three books!


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